Little China - there is one in almost every city, definitely every major one. NYC is no exception and in fact is supposedly the largest one in the US!! Chinatown here covers approximately two square miles covering the streets branching out of Canal street on either side; bounded by Kenmore street on the North, Worth street on the South, Allen street on the East, and Broadway on the West. And it is definitely part of the "New York City Tour" that almost every tourist and city resident (when they entertain out-of-towners with little time and huge expectations from the Big Apple! lots of ground to cover!) has taken at some point in their stay in the city.
Well, I suppose NY city itself is like a quilt stitched from many and different immigrant and native(?) cultures...The little Chinese enclave is definitely distinctive enough to really be a city by its own right! Its reputation as being the best place for a good bargain is well-founded; from fake Gucci bags with genuine looking name plates at $20 (that's just 1/20 of the original and looks just the same!!) to 'Burberry' coats to even 'Rolex' watches! The reputation carries from the mainland itself. When I was in Tokyo, I heard that many Japanese wives did a quick weekend hop-stop at Beijing to get the latest fashion in genuine looking fake labels!
However, my reason for going there today was far from such material possessions. The lure for me was the fresh seafood that you get here for great prices (relative to NY supermarkets!). I love shellfish and my biggest woe with the Food Emporiums and Wholefoods here is that a. they are at least once-frozen and b. they are super expensive!!! Growing up in Chennai, which is a coastal city, I had been pampered with the fresh catch of the day and I missed eating fresh seafood.
I usually trek all the way up to Flushing (there is a good sized pan-Asian settlement there) in search of such fresh catch. Along Kissena Blvd is the Chang Jiang supermarket that offers great fresh groceries and meats at bargain prices. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, a must pit-stop is the Quickly Bubble Tea shop across the street from the super market for some refreshing, cool, flavored tea (with or without milk) with the tapioca baubles. Definitely a great booster, prepping you for the long ride back home. :)
Anyway, today, I wasn't quite in the mood for the 1.5 hour trek to Queens and decided to check out the Chinatown in my backyard. And, I am glad I did. I took the 6 train all the way to Canal street (just a 20 minute ride). A short walk east and I was at the main market area. There are quite a few seafood markets along Canal and neighboring streets (I would suggest a leisurely walk comparing the fare before settling on a store).
Was I pleasantly surprised??!! :-)) These markets are the only place I have found in Manhattan that offer live seafood! They had everything I wanted - from fresh caught fish and shrimps to live crabs and lobsters. For meat lovers, there are also specialised meat stores like the Mulberry Meat Store on Mulberry street which sell both fresh and frozen meats.
You can even pick out the fish/seafood you want from a live fish tank (personally, I find that very difficult to do but I suppose there is some satisfaction in choosing the creature you are going to devour!). I was particularly attracted to the bucket of crabs especially at $5.50 for half a dozen! The sight brought back mouthwatering memories of mom's crab curry which I used to devour and I wanted to relive the experience.
So there was my dinner menu - Crab curry over rice! :)
My mother is a spectacular cook and I never saw any reason to be in her way for all the time I was at home. So, cooking all these delectable meats is always new experience for me - particularly I feel very very guilty about killing the poor creatures. But what to do! I love their meat!!! Ah! the sweet, succulent flesh of a happy, egg-bearing female crab. So, I made a compromise - my husband does the killing and I do the cleaning and cooking! Smart eh! ;-)
The most humane way of killing a crab is put them into a pot of hot boiling water and close the lid. They die in literally couple of seconds and never know what hit them (see! I am not all bad after all).
Once the crab is cleaned, you can cook them in a curry or fry them in a peppery mix. Both are great ways to appreciate the distinctive sweetness of the crab flesh. I grew up eating the curry form and hence have a soft corner for that preparation. The body is cooked whole along with the pincers and legs. The legs usually don't have much meat but add flavor to the dish (You can also use the legs to make yummy seafood broth).
Eating the whole cooked crab is definitely a messy affair and not recommended in company :). You really have to take apart the body into small pieces to get every molecule of yummy flesh! But the fruit of the patience is sweet (pun intended! :)) My husband finds the ROI (as he puts it) of the dish drawn down by the effort involved in getting to the meat..lol.. But for me, the effort is part of the cherished experience..
Incidentally, when you are in Chinatown, check out the bakeries. They offer a wide selection of sweets and meats - traditional and western. On Canal street is the Taipan Bakery which offers an interesting array of meat buns and breads, egg pudding pastries, cheese cakes which did not have any cheese for sure. A good choice of dessert to end the meal! :)
Our crab curry dinner came out perfect, just like mom's! :) and I am happy to have found a shortcut to fresh seafood!
Madras Crab Curry
6 Medium sized crabs cleaned
2 big red onions minced
1 tp ginger minced
2-3 cloves of garlic minced
3 ripe plum tomatoes pureed
2 T tomato paste
3 dry chillies
3 cloves, 1 piece cinnamon, 1 star anise crumbled, 3-4 whole peppercorns - whole spices
3/4 tp Urad dal
1/4 tp fennel seeds
1 lemon sized tamarind soaked in warm water
3/4 cup grated fresh coconut
1/4 cup coconut milk
1-2 cups water
Oil and salt as required
1/2 tpTumeric powder, 2 tp chilli powder, 3 tp garam masala - Dry spice
Heat two tablespoons of oil and roast the whole spices till they pop, then add the urad dal, fennel seeds and dry chillies. Continue roasting till the urad dal starts turning golden. Take care to not over roast the fennel seeds as they tend to emit a bitter taste to the whole curry. Saute the onion paste along with ginger and garlic till the raw smell goes away. Then add the dry spice and salt to taste. Roast for a couple of minutes to cook the spices. The curry is purposely on the milder side to ensure that the spices do not overpower the delicate meat flavor.
Add the fresh tomato puree and tomato paste and 1 cup water and cook till the tomato is cooked. Stir in the coconut milk and grated coconut and another cup of water and let the gravy come to a light boil on medium heat. Set the heat to low and then add the juice of the tamarind and bring back to rolling boil on medium. Turn heat low to simmer and add the crabs. Cook on low to medium for another 20-25 minutes till the crabs are fully done.
Let the gravy sit for atleast 2 hours so the crab meat absorbs the flavor of the curry. It is best when eaten the next day! Serve with hot rice cooked a couple of cloves and piece of cinnamon!